Queer people and public transport: a train of thought
When I asked to write about queerness and public transport, I was met with confusion. What in the world can be interesting to say about those two things together? Well, the first rule is, for all subjects, there is a queer way to apprehend it. The second rule, you already know: queering any topic makes it more interesting.
For this theme, contradiction was my starting point: How is it that LGBTQ people, including myself, seem to have a special place in their hearts for public transport when it’s one of the most dangerous places for us to be?
LGBT love for public transport is not something I made up based on my very limited circle of trains-enthusiast queers. Our obsession with it results in our larger presence in public transport advocating groups and offers such as special passes for LGBTQ visitors that combine public transport tickets with special discounts for queer spots around cities like Berlin, Cologne, and Vienna. It even seems to translate into politics: In 2021, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg became the first openly gay cabinet member in US history.
But why so much love? Is it only because we can’t drive? Let’s dig underground and ride the subway together looking for pieces of information, each line taking us in a new direction.
Subway Line 3, public transport as a place of vulnerability
At first, when I asked LGBTQI people about public transport, one word kept coming up: stares. “You face people's eyes directly, you have to wait 15 to 30 minutes in front of people who are directly staring at you” shared Emma. Being confined to a small environment where you can’t get away in-between stops is indeed an incredibly stressful experience for queer people, especially gender non-conforming individuals. Stares, as well as verbal and even physical assaults, are commonplace on public transport, so we’re always alert, keeping a lookout for danger. Statistics talk for themselves: in 2016, Transport for London’s Safety and Security annual report found that LGBT Londoners were significantly more likely to experience “unwanted sexual behavior” on the capital city’s transit system. Public transport is a place where queer people are especially vulnerable, which leaves us wondering why, despite knowing and having experienced it, we continue to be its most fervent supporters.
Subway Line 6, public transport as a prerequisite for our demographic
Parts of the answer could simply be found in demographics. Statistically, LGBT individuals are more likely to live in urban areas, where public transport is well developed and even preferable to use compared to other means of transportation like cars. Because we still have to flock to cities to feel safer and have a semblance of queer sociability, public transport becomes an important part of our lives. The time we spend in it, though it may be bad or good, still creates memories that make us feel more strongly about those liminal spaces.
Besides that, another contributing factor to the importance we attach to public transport may be found in our stronger consideration for our individual impact on the environment. As we experience oppression, we are more prone to care about social justice, of which ecology is a big part. It’s no wonder you can find so many queer people in climate justice and public transport advocacy groups: it all comes down to intersectionality. But beyond this purely statistical approach, there is something more profound, aspects that transcend practicality and environmental awareness: more than a means, public transport is an experience and a link.
Metro Line 1, public transport as a means of freedom and connection
If you’re a lesbian, chances are you’ve spent a considerable amount of time on buses and trains. There is a running joke on us lesbians being forced to experience at least one long-distance relationship in the course of our lives (and we’re not talking about a one-hour commute: it’s an LDR if there are at least 500km between you, and yes I do make the rules). The reason? “We are invisible, and it’s hard for us to find each other. So once we do, we don’t let go” Viv1 shared. So we keep going despite the distance, and something needs to cover that distance. Thus trains and planes become exciting places, in which we impatiently wait to join our lover. The routine of taking the same route, of watching the same landscapes through the window, becomes something we love because we associate it with our reunion.
Public transport is a bubble in which we exist outside of time. It’s a place of transit where we don’t have to do the work, to struggle to move forward: we are simply carried to our destination, as we can finally catch a breath. “I move around a lot and do a lot of things, and being on the train is the only time I can take a break. [Public transport] provides me with a brief respite, it forces me to take some time for myself” adds Viv1, a lesbian workaholic and a big train enthusiast.
Another railway fan, Glenn1 believes that their appeal for public transport also stems from the freedom it gives them: “When you're queer, you want to move around, you're called upon to see what's out there, to find places where life is better. The train is an easy way to get there”.
To transit-ion to our conclusion, not all public transport is made equal: when I asked my fellow queers about their feelings towards each of them, some were definitely preferred over others. If trains were repeatedly associated with a safe space, a cocoon, and a bubble outside of time, subways and buses were dreaded for their overstimulating aspects and the traumatic memories attached to them. If each is different, they are all carrying us towards each other, and are sometimes even the places in which we meet: one of my fav lesbian couples met on the commuter rail (yes, it’s possible). If we have to keep on advocating for more accessibility and safety measures on our commutes, we should also share all the special memories and bonds we have associated with them, because they hold major symbolic significance: We exist, we love and we live in this public space.
1 All names have been changed to protect individual's privacy.
2 The report can be found here